“Just as I was about to take the picture my mother gently squeezed my forefinger. It was one of our very precious last moments together that I will never forget as long as I live.” EVEWRIGHT describing their work Mother’s Touch (the artist with his work pictured above)
As the UK begins to emerge from the national lockdown, a new exhibition at Firstsite – part of its 10th anniversary year and reopening celebrations – provides the opportunity for us all to pause and reflect on our experiences and considers the important role art and creativity can play in community wellbeing and building resilience following the pandemic.
In June 2020, the North East Essex Clinical Commissioning Group approached Firstsite to make a project that recorded the COVID-19 experiences of NHS key workers. Working with a number of artists, including Alec Finlay, EVEWRIGHT and Roland Carline, people in frontline roles in the health and care sectors took part in a series of workshops to explore their experiences of the pandemic and the subsequent effects on their lives.
Art for Life is the fascinating and poignant result of these workshops – which guided the participants through language, poetry, calligraphy, listening and discussion-based exercises– and reflects key themes that emerged from them, including the significance of nature, walking and touch, as well as notions of time and diary keeping; innovative ways people found to measure time during a period when every day had a tendency to feel the same.
Alongside new artworks made by contemporary artists Alec Finlay, Hannah Devereux, EVEWRIGHT, Hayley Newman and Roland Carline, Art for Life also features specially-selected loans from the Arts Council Collection – with whom Firstsite is a National Partner 2019-22 – and a variety of pieces made by the keyworkers who took part in the initial workshops. There will also be artworks made by NHS art psychotherapists who generously gave up their time to support the sessions.
Several of the artists involved suffer from the long COVID or have lost family members during the crisis.
One of the most heartrending images in the exhibition is EVEWRIGHT’s Mother’s Touch, a photograph the artist took during some of the last moments he spent with his mother, before she died of respiratory failure on 10 April 2020.
EVEWRIGHT says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has forced humanity to talk about death again and come to terms with new ways of dealing with loss in its raw naked state. This artwork has been a way for me to start the healing process. Even now when listening to the doctor giving me the bad news about the death of my mother from that very low emotional point in my life, I was able to start to rebuild again. In a way to show such a work exposes my underbelly, it is an on-going process of healing for me.”
Artworks offer reminders of new experiences which visitors may have shared, or indeed missed. On loan from the Arts Council Collection is Barbara Walker’s painting depicting African-Caribbean barber shops in Handsworth, an area of her home city, Birmingham (Boundary II, 2000). This large-scale painting playfully reminds us of our mutual longing for a haircut during the lockdown and celebrates the social interactions that take place in environments such as this.
Alec Finlay and Hannah Devereux’s photographs of landscapes involving bedding seek to highlight the connection between the vulnerable body and the vulnerable landscape and Hayley Newman’s watercolours of pillows and lungs reflect her own experience of having the virus. Hayley says “Drawing, painting and listening to the radio was part of my creative rehabilitation, an imaginative remedy taken while sitting at our living room table. I took great pleasure in making these, as they were the first sign of recovery after the acute phase of the illness.”
Alongside the collection of artworks, the keyworkers recount their experiences of Covid-19 via a series of films which play in the space. Stark and emotional, the films give an insight into challenges faced, but look to the future with hope – this hope is also reflected in the large rainbow painted on the wall over the entrance to the show.
Firstsite Director Sally Shaw MBE says: “Art for Life offers us an opportunity to reflect on all the things that became important under lockdown and the different strategies and coping mechanisms we have used to find our way through a world which changed almost overnight. Among the heartbreaking aspects of it, there are lighter moments that show how people discovered newfound creativity and used their lockdown time to try something different.
As we move out of, hopefully, the last lockdown, Art for Life may provide a cathartic experience for many and offers us all a space to reflect, connect through shared experiences and be inspired by our community’s strength and resilience throughout this challenging time.
Designed to provide a creative record of this historic period, we hope this exhibition will also continue conversations and provoke creative solutions to important issues highlighted by the pandemic – from the crucial roles key workers play in our society and the importance of community and human connection, to the steps needed to achieve equitable access to healthcare and create a truly inclusive society.”
Ed Garratt, Executive Lead for the Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care System and Accountable Officer for the NHS North East Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We are extremely grateful to Firstsite for their work to record the experiences of health and care staff during this extraordinary time in history. The physical and emotional toll on staff has been immense, but it has also been immense for other frontline workers and for many people in the communities we serve. Accepting the challenges we have faced and those we still face, the losses we have suffered and the lessons we have learned, will all be part of the recovery process and art can help us to do that, whether we create it ourselves or view the work of others.”
For more information about Firstsite, follow @firstsite on Twitter, @firstsitecolchester on Instagram, like the Firstsite Colchester Facebook page or visit firstsite.uk
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Firstsite is a public contemporary art gallery in Colchester, making and showing exceptional art and culture that celebrates the diverse and radical people of East Anglia in order to empower all communities to be creative together and lead healthier and happier lives. In 2021, Firstsite is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its spectacular crescent-shaped building, designed by award-winning Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, with a year of celebration projects and commissions – which kicked off with The Great Big Art Exhibition. Over the last ten years Firstsite has gained a strong, critical reputation, presenting ambitious work to be enjoyed by all in a fun and inclusive environment. Firstsite is a partner of Plus Tate, which uses Tate’s resources to contribute to a network of art organisations across the country, and to increase public access. Firstsite’s exhibitions are free and open to anyone. Follow us on Twitter & Facebook @firstsite and Instagram @firstsitecolchester
The Arts Council Collection is the most widely circulated national loan collection of modern and contemporary British art in the world. Founded in 1946, the Collection reaches the broadest possible audience through long loans to public institutions, exhibition loans and touring exhibitions, as well as digital and print publications. It can be seen in exhibitions in museums and galleries across the UK and includes important works by all of the UK’s most prominent artists. The Collection is managed by Southbank Centre, London on behalf of Arts Council England and is based at the Southbank Centre. The Collection also has a centre for sculpture at Longside, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There are now over 8,000 works in the Collection, including paintings, sculpture, original works on paper, prints and moving image. The Collection supports artists in the UK through the purchase and display of their work, and safeguards it for future generations, using the highest possible standards of collection care. Unique among national collections, the Arts Council Collection also lends to numerous public buildings across the UK, including schools, universities, hospitals and charitable associations.
The National Partners Programme was launched in 2016 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Arts Council Collection by creating a network of regional galleries and museums to present and curate exhibitions drawn from the Arts Council Collection. The first four National Partner museums and galleries were: Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne; the Birmingham Museums Trust; the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool; and the Collection’s existing partner, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The second round of National Partners for 2019-22 are Firstsite in Essex; Sunderland Culture in Tyne and Wear and The Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Cornwall. Funded by the National Lottery, the programme aims to build a deeper relationship with regional audiences by building a UK-wide network across regional partners, connecting local visitors to their national collection.
Arts Council England (ACE) is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. ACE support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2018 and 2022, ACE will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.
Image credit; EVEWRIGHT looking at his work Mothers Touch. Image © Firstsite